At Forbes’ inaugural 30 Under 30 summit on Monday, Monica Lewinsky gave her first public address in the 16 years since the scandal broke that destroyed her reputation and changed her life forever. The topic of the speech was near and dear to her heart: the rising trend in online behavior, cyberbullying.
"My name is Monica Lewinsky — though I've often been advised to change it," she said.
Cyberbullying has become a hot-button topic of late, thanks to the recent spate of hackers releasing nude photos of celebrities, the #GamerGate controversy, and the growing issue of general Internet harassment. Anti-cyberbullying activists are certainly not new, but Lewinsky’s personal experience is unique. In her speech, Lewinsky argued that she was Patient Zero, “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
She is, of course, referencing her 1998 affair with President Bill Clinton and the months (even years) of gossip and rumors that followed.
“There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then,” she explained. “But, there were gossip, news, and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails which could be forwarded…A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly ‘social media.'”
This isn’t the first time she’s spoken openly about the affair. In May, she penned a exclusive for Vanity Fair explaining her regret and the dramatic ways her life changed after the news broke. Job hunting became almost impossible: “Because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,' I was never ‘quite right’ for the position,” she wrote.
Though she mentioned in Monday’s speech being “in love” with Clinton "in a 22-year-old sort of a way," the true purpose of her talk was not to divulge new tidbits about the past but to share her experience, which she believes others can relate to. Lewinsky described her state just after the intimate details of her relationship with Clinton leaked:
“Staring at the computer screen, I spent the day shouting: ‘Oh my god!’ and ‘I can’t believe they put that in’ or ‘That’s so out of context,’ And, those were the only thoughts that interrupted a relentless mantra in my head: ‘I want to die.’”
Suicidal thoughts after this kind of harassment are not uncommon. It was the 2010 suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi — whose college roommate secretly filmed and shared video of Clementi with another male — that prompted her to speak out about her own experience with online harassment. Lewinsky is not alone in her experiences — Forbes reports that nearly 54% of young Facebook users describe being bullied or harassed online.
Lewinsky concluded her speech by sharing her hopes that her story will comfort those who have been hurt in similar ways, and that a “cultural revolution” will follow suit.
“Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit — an Empathy Crisis, and something tells me that matters a lot more to most of us.”